Score one for originality

Ethnic sounds, electronics and a 'less-is-more' aesthetic are changing the sound of mainstream movies.

What does a Hollywood film sound like? Invariably, the answer involves the grand scale of a lush orchestral composition full of sweep and bombast, one that works overtime to highlight the thrills, chills and romance of a big-screen spectacle. But increasingly, composers -- with the encouragement of their directors -- are setting aside the swelling strings and crashing cymbals, opting instead for more intimate, experimental compositions that push the boundaries of what a Hollywood score should sound like.

The unconventional score isn't a new idea -- Anton Karas created the brilliant, enduring score for 1950's "The Third Man" playing a zither. But the fact that this year's Academy Award for best original score went to Gustavo Santaolalla's beautifully minimalist work for "Brokeback Mountain" might be a sign that both audiences and members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have come to appreciate some musical risk-taking. And a survey of several top composers indicates that the sound of Hollywood is becoming richly varied and anything but predictable.


"There are people who do incredible orchestral stuff, but it's so done already," Santaolalla says. "Directors and audiences become a little numb to that kind of scoring. Sometimes with less, you can achieve so much more."

For "Brokeback," Santaolalla achieved maximum effect from a steel-string guitar, a pedal-steel guitar and some low-key string sections. He even took an unconventional approach to the process of scoring, composing most of his work from a script before the film was even shot.

"I was surprised that I was nominated and even more surprised that I won the Academy Award," he says. "And I was glad not just for my own sense of accomplishment, but I was also happy because I thought it was a great acknowledgment from the Academy that (music) could come from another angle and still be very effective. I applaud the Academy for that, regardless of the fact that it was my score."

Santaolalla is taking another unusual angle again on his score for
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's international thriller "Babel," released last month by Paramount Vantage, relying primarily on the sound of an oud -- a stringed, fretless Middle Eastern instrument -- to support a story that moves through Morocco, Tunisia, Japan and Mexico.

It's an approach that other composers say they respect. "You can find the whole world of a film in one instrument, or you can find a world of sound in the orchestra," says Howard Shore, who won Oscars for his work on 2001's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and 2003's "The Return of the King." While Shore obviously has mastered the traditional approach to scoring, his body of work -- particularly the 11 films he has done with director David Cronenberg -- could almost serve as a guidebook for the different ways a score can be handled.

Most recently, Shore scored Warner Bros. Pictures' October release "The Departed," directed by Martin Scorsese, for which he eschewed pure orchestral sounds to create a score that features music written for four particular guitarists: Sharon Isbin, Marc Ribot, Larry Saltzman and G.E. Smith.
"I love working with an orchestra, but there are many ways to make music," Shore says. "The music for 'The Departed' could have been played by an orchestra, but you make a decision about orchestration based on the context of the film. You want the music to broaden the scope of a film, not just repeat what you're seeing. You're working with the image, but you're also trying to create a subtext and help tell the story in a very subtle way. A lot of what a composer does has to do with storytelling, and there are different ways of fusing music with picture to express different storytelling ideas."

As a film composer, Philip Glass has helped to tell a wide range of stories, from 1988's true-crime documentary "The Thin Blue Line" to Yari Film Group's August release "The Illusionist" and Fox Searchlight's planned December offering "Notes on a Scandal." While Glass, who also writes music for opera, ballet and other concert works, has received mainstream recognition via two Oscar nominations -- for 1997's "Kundun" and 2002's "The Hours" -- he still feels the idiosyncratic nature of his work bars him from joining the ranks of traditional Hollywood composers.

"The kind of music I do is probably good nomination material but not good Oscar material," Glass laughs. "The work is considered of serious quality, but it's destined not to win; that's fine with me because I think it's important just to be at the table. And it's very exciting to be creating work at this particular moment because I think the future of the film composer has yet to be defined."

Similarly, Craig Armstrong works in both the classical and film music worlds -- he conducted a live performance of his music for 2001's "Moulin Rouge," 2003's "Love Actually" and 2004's "Ray" at last month's Flanders Film Festival. "In a sense, it's hard to know what the Hollywood sound is anymore because so many composers are working in an individual way," says Armstrong, who also wrote the minimalist score to Paramount's August release "World Trade Center," directed by Oliver Stone. "I think a similar thing is happening with classical composers, and the music from both worlds is getting closer to each other. It used to be that when I got a classical commission, I wrote very differently from the way I wrote my film music, but there's not really as much of a difference anymore."

One of the most unusual nonorchestral scores belongs to Fox Searchlight's summer comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," for which composer Mychael Danna used the Denver-based indie rock band DeVotchKa for both original songs and underscore.

"Traditional orchestration won't go away -- and shouldn't," Danna says. "But it's fantastic that there's now a recognition of more than just standard orchestral score. ... For me, the first big question in the film-scoring process is always the concept behind the score, and right from the beginning, the directors (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) and I felt the music of DeVotchKa was a perfect musical analogy for what the film was saying. Using the band for songs and score was a limitation that didn't feel limiting at all."

Sometimes, musical limitations would seem to be built into the subject matter of a film, and a composer's challenge is to push past the obvious musical associations of the images to which he or she is scoring. When composer David Julyan began work on Buena Vista's October release "The Prestige," a tale of rival magicians set in 19th century London, one of the first things he was told by director Christopher Nolan was that the film should not have a period sound.

"Chris had no interest in a traditional costume-drama score," Julyan says. "There's a lot of orchestra in the score, but there's also a lot of electronics and synthesizers. One of the concepts I worked with was the sound of an orchestra tuning up because that's just so evocative, and we also used an electro-acoustic technique called the 'shepherd tone,' the audio equivalent of an optical illusion, which creates music that sounds like it's always rising in pitch. I'd say that the score ended up serving the picture well, and it was very satisfying to work that way.

I think one of the most appealing things about film music is the ability to push what's considered conventional."

A mixture of orchestral and electronic elements also can be heard in composer Alexandre Desplat's music for Miramax's October release "The Queen," director Stephen Frears' depiction of the royal family's reaction to the 1997 death of Princess Diana, starring Helen Mirren in the title role. The idea, Desplat says, was to create historical context and emotional depth for a story centered on familiar public figures. The obvious choice for a movie that takes place in the tony world of British royalty would be a lush traditional score, but Desplat says that was only part of a delicate balance he struck for the film's music.

"The sound of the score had to fit the wooden and golden interiors of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral (Castle) and create a vintage, dusty, organic feel," he says. "I therefore used elements of instrumentation of the past such as mandolin, harpsichord and harp playing on top of a string orchestra. But I also mixed in sequenced electronic-bass elements, which bring us back to the sound of the '80s -- the era when Princess Diana became a worldwide star. The score always needed to play at the border of the comedy and the emotion. A fine line of respect had to be maintained, otherwise, with one step too much in either direction, you are making fun of Queen (Elizabeth II) or overdramatizing Diana's death."

A historical figure of a completely different kind presented a musical challenge for Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland" composer Alex Heffes, who found that an unconventional approach to scoring was the best way to handle a figure as complex as Idi Amin, who is at the center of the September-released drama. "The film's about a Scottish doctor thrown into a strange environment," Heffes says, "and the music does a similar thing -- throws together elements that wouldn't normally be together. You end up with something like 'Lach Loman' being sung by an Ugandan choir. We wanted the music to counterpoint some of the things you're seeing. Amin's a very unpredictable character whose emotions could turn on a dime, so that showed up in the music as well."

Heffes had the opportunity to travel through Uganda before filming began to research the country's tribal music and pop music, both of which became elements in the score. "When I got to moments that might otherwise have been scored conventionally, I had all these other musical ideas to draw from," he says. "It was a rare pleasure to be able to spend that much time thinking about sound and songs and how it would all work with score."

Of course, there are other factors beyond story, concept or aesthetics that might dictate whether or not a film is scored conventionally or not. "Money," composer John Powell laughs. "That's ultimately one of the things that separates the conventional from the unconventional. In a Hollywood film, you can afford 95 minutes of orchestral music. With a European film or an indie film, maybe you can only afford 25 minutes of any kind of music. It's not always a creative decision. That said, sometimes you find a story that doesn't need 60 strings behind it, and you make the decision to go in a different direction. We're in a time where the world is opening up to many kinds of (global) music, and people in Hollywood are starting to see a lot of different ways that music can work for their films. But it has to work. I've seen plenty of films where an understated, restrained score just succeeded in making the film dull."

Powell has worked some very different musical and emotional territory lately -- namely, April's Sept. 11 drama "United 93" (Universal), the May actioner "X-Men: The Last Stand" (Fox) and Warner Bros.' animated comedy "Happy Feet," opening Friday. For the latter film, Powell penned a conventional score with some serious orchestral moments -- an unusual choice for a light-hearted family film. "I did an early pass, and what I found was that if I wrote a score that played to the humor, and let the music get frivolous or silly, we lost the hero story that's at the center," he says. "There's a lot of comedy in the film, but there's an epic quest in there, too, that the score had to treat seriously."

For most composers, simply having the score itself treated seriously, no matter what musical approach is taken, is a reward in itself. And for those composers creating unconventional work, having those scores heard and appreciated is cause for encouragement.

"I think as composers, we feel we play an enormous role in a film's success or failure, and it's rarely acknowledged," Glass says. "That's why it's very meaningful that our music is important enough to be a part of the big lineup on Oscar night. Look, the function of the music is not to decorate the film but to articulate the structure of a film and give it an emotional point of view; that's what a composer's supposed to do, whatever the film and however the score gets done. There's that old line that says, 'You're not supposed to hear a score.' I think that's nonsense. I'll be bold enough to speak for all composers and say, 'We'd like you to hear the music.'"